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How to Effectively Communicate Change

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. ― Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

More than 500 years after these words were written, change is still a huge challenge for leaders in any businessChange Management is a coveted skill for any leader because change is always happening within organizations, yet people are also incredibly (and predictably) resistant to changeHow predictable, you ask?  

The Change Curve

The Kübler Ross Change Curve®, adapted from the 5 Stages of Grief® created by the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, describes the typical progression of reactions we all have to change.

Austin, John. (2015). Leading Effective Change: A Primer for the HR Professional.

While not everyone will follow this exact progression for every change, you’ll probably recognize this pattern from previous change efforts, within others and likely within yourselfIt should also be noted that not only is each person’s progression potentially different, “regressionswithin the curve can happen as well, particularly from the Experiment stageEffective change management is not about eliminating this progressionInstead, effective change managers focus on moving people through the curve as quickly as possible to the Integration stage.  Understanding why people resist change and being empathetic to those reasons is the first step to effectively managing change.  

Seven Reasons People Resist Change

Fear of the Unknown

The human brain is an amazing thingIt takes in and processes an unbelievable amount of data every waking momentIt creates neural pathways that allow for the use of our autopilot feature, known as automaticity, as much as possible while keeping on alert for threatsWhen we’re faced with something unfamiliar, our brain kicks into overdrive to quickly identify and address threatsWhile this function has allowed us to thrive as a species, it also means that we are naturally anxious about change.  

Fear of Failure

People often resist change because they lack confidence in their ability to adaptIf you’re adopting a new technology to replace one that people are very comfortable with, they may (reasonably or not) fear they will be unable to learn how to use itThat fear can lead to resistance as a shield from the failure they imagine.  

Loss Aversion

Social scientists have been discussing the idea of loss aversion for nearly 50 yearsA global study from 2019 convincingly demonstrated that people prefer small, guaranteed outcomes over larger risky outcomes.  Change naturally comes with loss of some sortIt could be a loss of a tool or process and even if the new tool or process has a good chance of being better, we lean heavily toward the status quo.


You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to make a habitWhile this saying is not true, habit formation (or breaking) is incredibly difficult and can take a long timeBuilding a habit is the process of creating new paths within the neural network of your brainHabits, by nature, are characterized by all or some form of efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality, and uncontrollabilityThe complex nature of habits, particularly the lack of awareness, means we naturally resist change even unconsciously.  


Our status, income, and control over our situation are all potentially on the line when organizational change occursOur self-identity can be wrapped up in our role within an organizationThis is more than loss aversionThe feeling of losing control of our own identity and standing in the world can make even the most adventurous feel lost and scared.  

Lack of Trust

Past traumas and cultural conditioning may reduce our trust in the people leading the change or the likelihood of success.  Our past experiences factor heavily into our foundation of trustA failed change effort, whether at your current organization or a previous one, informs how we evaluate current change efforts.  The culture of the organization can also have a huge impact on how change is framed.  Others may have seen past failures within the organization and the lack of trust may be socialized, influencing the level of trust in othersIt’s also possible that the person in charge of the change effort isn’t trusted and by extension, the effort isn’t trusted.  

No Communication or Miscommunication

Fear, loss aversion, habits, personal control of identity, trust – what these all have in common is leadership’s inability to control themInfluence – yesControl – not a chanceBut communication – that’s the one aspect leadership can control, and it has the most influence on most of the other barriers discussedIf you fail at communication, you can be all but certain that the other barriers will be more intense.  

A Strategy for Effective Communication

Given the role change communication has in influencing all the natural barriers to change, it may be the most critical aspect of any change initiativeA good communication strategy does more than support the change effort – it can influence the decision to change by bringing clarity on the purpose of change and how success will be measuredLet’s explore what should be considered when preparing your change communication.

What, Who, Why, and When?

These likely look very familiar to you as the beginning of open-ended probing questionsLet’s explore them in more detail:

What is Changing?

Define the change in as much detail as possibleYou may find that a larger change effort that impacts the entire organization will also include multiple dependent changes that may require their own communication.  

Who Needs to Know?

Sometimes, the entire organization needs to know about a specific changeOther times, it may affect only one specific departmentWhile company-wide communications are common for change efforts, don’t forget vendors and/or customers when considering who needs to know about your change effort.

Why is this Change Occurring?

Potentially the most important question to answer is why you’re making the changeThere may be multiple reasons for the change, but it’s important to communicate your reasons behind the move to assuage fear and lack of trust as much as possible.  

When is the Change Occurring?

Timelines are important not only for communication, but for planningYou may find that your timeline is unrealistic and needs to be adjusted.  Unrealistic timelines erode trust.  It’s also important to identify milestones along the way and so you can identify when you need support and resources readywe’ll talk about that in a moment.  It’s also important to communicate whether this change is permanent or temporary.


Put on your sales hat – this is the part of the communication plan that should extoll all the virtues of the change.  You should have at least 2 types of benefits highlighted – those that benefit the company and those that benefit the employeesLike the “who” above, don’t forget to consider benefits to customers and/or vendorsAll that said, the first benefit should address the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me?  Change is difficult, but if I see a personal benefit, it’s much easier for me to get on board with the change effort.  

Roles and Expectations 

People will want to know what role they will play in the change effortWhen identifying roles, it’s a good idea to identify influencers who may react negatively to the changeInfluencers are not necessarily in leadership positions, but they tend to be vocal and people listen to themIf possible, seek their input early in the process to turn them into cheerleaders for the effort rather than saboteursWill they be part of the change effortPeople also want to know what’s expected of them during the change process – what they should stop doing and/or start doing, what they will need to learn, etc.  

Support and Resources

Change efforts may require training, coaching, job-aids, and more to support the people affected by the changeDo you need a support lineMaybe a support chat or inbox Do you have the resources to provide support in-house or do you need to outsource it? Of course, developing training materials and job-aids can be time-consuming and should be considered when developing your overall timelineIf these aren’t already included in the budget, be sure to address this as early as possible.  

Measuring Success

While you may have considered what success looks like when identifying benefits, it’s important to establish milestones and/or KPIs that will measure success and communicate themNot only will you need to identify how you’ll measure success, but you may need to communicate those successes as they occur during the change processIf for instance, you establish 4 milestones spread throughout the change process, you should communicate at planned intervals to celebrate success and/or identify mitigation efforts if you’re not meeting your milestone goals.

Communication Channels

Last, but not leastWe’ve identified what we need to communicate and when we need to communicate – now comes the howThere are so many ways to communicate throughout the change effort – townhalls, team meetings, email, in-app notifications, traditional mail, etc.  You’ll need to consider the audience and the topic of each communication point to determine the best channel(s) for that messageFinally, when in doubt, over-communicate.